"You're going to be a star."
Those were the words Johnny Carson spoke to Joan Rivers on national television on the night of February 17, 1965. Only moments before, Joan had been an unknown and struggling comic -- an anxious but enormously talented fighter who had to tear down mountains to convince the Tonight show bookers to squeeze her into the last ten minutes of the show. But thanks to a killer set -- and Carson's coast-to-coast anointment of her as a force to be reckoned with -- her life changed.
"The next morning, the phones went off the hook," Joan once told me. "It was really like an overnight sensation. Amazing."
Every performer needs a mentor to give them support, to show them the ropes, to tell them that everything is going to be okay. Show business can be a painfully isolating profession, and a little nod of approval can go a long way. When I began filming my series, That Girl, I was renting a sound stage at Desilu Studios, which was owned by Lucille Ball. Although I had confidence in the show, like all young performers I wasn't sure if I was delivering the goods. Then one day Lucy dropped by our set (Lucille Ball for God's sake -- only the best TV comedienne ever!), watched me film for about 20 minutes and then made eye contact with me. She gave me a smile and a wink -- it felt like an Emmy!
Stand-up comedy is no different, especially for those performers who spend most of the year bouncing from one small club to the next, "killing" on some nights and "dying" on others, always questioning whether they've got what it takes. That's why it's so important for a young comic not only to land that elusive break, but to get a cheerleader in the process.
Like Tom Papa, who was hand-picked by the king of comedy himself, Jerry Seinfeld, not only to open for his club act, but also to host The Marriage Ref, which Seinfeld produced. From there, Papa's career ignited.
Or Carmen Lynch, whose debut on Letterman last November was so side-splittingly triumphant that the host himself approached her while she was taking her bows -- on camera -- and invited her to come back.
Or my good pal Vicky Kuperman, whose signature spin on her Russian heritage -- combined with her distinctly American sass -- convinced comedy legend David Brenner to include her in a special young comedians showcase he staged last fall in New York. I attended that event and am happy to report: Vicky brought the house down.
I have often said that no performer in show business earns my admiration like those smart and gutsy stand-ups who storm the stage and bare their souls -- and all in an effort just to make us laugh. And so (with a nod to that old Letterman franchise) it is a delight to present to you my Top Twelve "Comedians to Watch." A round of applause to the big-name stars who have helped nurture their careers -- and to the comedians themselves: may you all continue to kill!
While Ted Alexandro is now appearing on major shows like Letterman and headlining sold out clubs nationwide, he earned his stripes touring as the opening act for the very popular <strong>Louis C. K.</strong>. Their different styles worked perfectly together for audiences, especially during an engagement at Carnegie Hall, which took Ted’s career to a whole new level. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arSH063yDvg" target="_blank">Watch</a>
For years, Tom Papa has enjoyed the support of one of the biggest names in comedy – <strong>Jerry Seinfeld</strong>. As far as endorsements go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Seinfeld not only hand-picked Tom to be his opening act, but also hired him to host the Marriage Ref, which he produced. From there, Tom was on his way, racking up countless TV credits and recently taping his fourth stand-up special. <a href="http://www.comedycentral.com/comedians/tom-papa" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Erin Jackson, a quick-witted comedian from Washington, D.C. -- best known for her conversational style and great timing -- had been working the comedy circuit for years. She had even appeared in the semi-finals of Last Comic Standing. When she got a call telling her that her idol, <strong>Ellen DeGeneres</strong>, was a big fan and wanted her to fly to L.A. to perform on her show, she thought she was being pranked. Erin’s national TV appearance on Ellen propelled her career to a whole new level. <a href="http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/6ohzvq/live-at-gotham-marrying-into-comedy" target="_blank">Watch</a>
You may recognize her from the round table on Chelsea Lately, but Jen Kirkman's stand-up career has skyrocketed not only because of Chelsea Handler's endorsement, but also from touring with the other "Comedians of Chelsea Lately." Jen is currently headlining around the country, and has two comedy albums under her belt. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cTH4LQ9RuY" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Talk about opening for a major headliner -- how about the Leader of the Free World? Wali Collins, a brilliant comedian who formerly warmed up audiences at The Late Show with David Letterman, has performed on several occasions as an opener for both <strong>Michelle</strong> and <strong>President Obama</strong>. Clearly, that’s a stamp of approval. <a href="http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/ytphp4/stand-up-wali-collins--woolworth-s" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Comedian Godfrey made a big splash when <strong>Jimmy Fallon</strong> had him on his show; and his hilarious routine about growing up in America with African parents became an instant classic. Another big name who helped Godfrey along the way is <strong>Ben Stiller</strong>, who cast him in his 2001 hit comedy film Zoolander, in which Godfrey played himself. <a href="http://24wired.tv/49436/late-night-with-jimmy-fallon-godfrey-does-stand-up-on-growing-up-african/" target="_blank">Watch</a>
An appearance on Late Night With David Letterman is one of the holy grails of comedy, and for <strong>Carmen Lynch</strong> it proved to be just the ticket. Carmen, a slyly original and endlessly witty comic, delivered a show-stopping performance on her late-night television debut last November --and the national exposure, combined with her killer set, elevated her career overnight. After her performance, Letterman walked up to her on camera and told her he was looking forward to having her back. Game, set, match. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=872q6syb8GQ" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Tapped as one of five new stand-ups to appear in comedy legend <strong>David Brenner</strong>'s “What’s So Funny?” showcase, Russian-born New Yorker Vicky Kuperman credits Brenner for her skyrocketing popularity. “She’s got the stuff to be a star,” Brenner commented. Screen actor <strong>Danny Aiello</strong> agrees, calling Vicky “the funniest, smartest comedienne around today.” In addition to her growing club career, Vicky is also a regular on <a href="http://www.funnyordie.com/search/a?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=vicky+kuperman&commit=Submit+Query" target="_blank">Funny or Die</a>, where she writes, produces and stars in short comic films. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6QO4A1C8MTc" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Idaho native Ryan Hamilton was a working comedian for years, establishing himself on the circuit and garnering excellent notices. Then he caught the attention of stand-up veteran <strong>Caroline Rhea</strong>, who gave him a huge national platform by inviting him onto her Showtime stand-up special, “Caroline and Friends.” That’s when Ryan’s career really took off. <a href="http://www.lolcomedy.tv/videos/1045543704001/" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Jessica Kirson has been killing in New York City and nationwide for years -- at comedy clubs, corporate events, theaters and festivals. Routinely delivering powerhouse sets that leave audiences gasping for breath, Jessica caught the eye of <strong>Jay Leno</strong>, who has had her on the Tonight show twice. Actor and comedian <strong>Jim Gaffigan</strong> is also a huge fan, casting her in a role on his new CBS pilot, which is due to air later this year. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IofW-_lBsjQ" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Despite her hilarious writing and singular on-stage delivery, Tig Notaro’s life was seized by tragedy in the fall of 2012: her mother died, her long-term personal relationship ended, and she was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer. Just a few nights after learning about her disease, Tig took the stage at Largo in Los Angeles, opening with the line, “Hello, I have cancer,” and unleashing a 30-minute set about the crises in her life that was as funny as it was heartbreaking. Comedy superstar <strong>Louis C.K.</strong> was in the club that night, and immediately sprung into action -- posting an audio capture of the performance on his website and encouraging fans to buy it so he could donate most of the money to Tig. The recording was downloaded more than 75,000 times, providing Tig not only with national exposure, but endless help and support. She is now cancer-free. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwqPeVkiDR4" target="_blank">Watch</a>
Nebraska native Brad Stewart waited tables for 15 years in Los Angeles, struggling to pay the bills and always looking for that big break. And then he landed it. In 2010, <strong>Joan Rivers</strong> chose Brad to open for her, an honor that he has now enjoyed more than 40 times -- including in his home state, which was a very special homecoming for him. “He is so talented and a joy to work with," Joan says. The change in his career is astonishing, says Brad: He has gone from performing for ten people is a club, to theatre audiences of 1,500 -- and all thanks to Joan. <a href="http://www.bradstewartcomedy.com/" target="_blank">Watch</a>
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